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Illustration by Joanna Turner

The start of growing season brings so much hope. The promise of leaves, blooms and berries all coming to fruition as the days warm and the sun shines. This spring, along with an array of annuals I’m set to plant, I can’t wait to see what yield I get from the Tom Thumb lettuce seeds my husband and I pop into our Vegepod, a neat growing container that suits our balcony set-up in Toronto.

Beyond the beautiful foliage and flowers you can raise, container gardening can do wonders for weekly meal planning. “I love the idea that it’s possible to grow food in places that you might not think of as suitable for growing food,” says Toronto-based gardener and educator Lara Lucretia Mrosovsky, whose books An Illustrated Guide to Growing Food on Your Balcony and Grow Without a Garden: 101 Plants for Containers are a testament to the thrill of cultivation in small spaces.

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From mixed feelings about today’s industrial agriculture model to rising grocery prices and climate change affecting availability, there are myriad reasons why container gardening is a good idea. Like the range a container garden offers, there are an equal number of tried-and-true tips to consider as you embark on your plant-growth journey this year.

When can I start bringing plants outside again?

Pardon the pun – and this will be hard to do if you’re especially eager to get growing – but you need to contain your enthusiasm for outdoor gardening until the conditions are perfect. Stephanie Persichilli, retail manager at Valleyview Gardens in Markham, Ont., says that while Victoria Day weekend is traditionally the time when we can think about bringing any plants that have overwintered or started inside out into the world, that practice comes with a caveat.

“You have to look at nighttime temperatures,” Persichilli says, noting that they should be relatively consistent at 10 C. “A few years ago, we had a season during which we were telling people to be careful around the Victoria Day weekend. But most people just planted over that time, and a frost came not long after and everything they planted died.”

If I started plants inside, is there anything I should do to help them transition outdoors?

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Illustration by Joanna Turner

Once the appropriate moment arrives, you’ll be keen to place the plants you’ve sheltered or started inside. But you can’t simply transfer them – they have to be hardened off.

Your plants should be exposed to the elements for a few hours at a time over the course of a week or two, with a gradual increase in exposure to sun and wind, says Emily Tregunno, co-owner of Halifax Seed Company. “Watch how the plant responds to it,” she says, adding that the higher up your garden, the windier it will be. “Your soil will dry out much quicker,” she notes. “So you’re going to have to pay some attention to the moisture content in the soil during this time.”

What are some safe ways to protect your flower and vegetable beds from visiting animals and insects?

No matter where your container garden is located, you’re bound to have some type of unwelcome visitor over the season (and no, I don’t mean your nosy neighbour). From squirrels to aphids, there are many types of pests that can quickly transform all your hard work into a mess.

Chloé Fortier-Devin, owner of the Montreal-based gardening consultancy and plant retailer Le Jardin de la devinette, says that a physical barrier such as netting or chicken wire is really the best way to safely secure your garden efforts, noting that homey deterrents such as sprinkling cayenne pepper on your soil is “a bit harsh on the animal,” and water spray systems are something a pest could just get used to. When it comes to insect infestations, she says that diluted black soap is an often-used biodegradable fix.

She and other experts highlight attention to pruning as a good technique for avoiding bugs in the first place, adding that when you’re inspecting leaves for things such as aphids, ensure you look at both sides. If you do notice them, you can try transplanting a few ladybugs onto the plant as a “good natural control,” Tregunno suggests. She also recommends planting marigolds as an insect-management strategy that adds a dash of peppy colour.

What’s a plant most people don’t consider for containers gardens that can thrive in a confined space?

An abundance of goodies from tomatoes – Fortier-Devin hypes dwarf varieties – to Tregunno’s suggestion of potatoes, bush cucumbers, beans, peas and strawberries can take root in your container garden nicely. “When I plant my containers, I’m very strategic,” Tregunno adds. “Right by my kitchen door, I will always have a container of lettuce greens that I can harvest quickly, as well as different herbs.”

Mrosovsky also enthuses over nurturing an herbal container garden. “They can be really rewarding because you could harvest them sooner than a tomato, for instance,” she says. “And they tend to be adaptable to different conditions.” Among the herbs Mrosovsky enjoys tending to are chives and basil, as well as tea-worthy plants including lemon balm, skullcap and nervine. “You can think of it as your own herbal dispensary,” she says, adding that many plants “have wellness benefits in addition to being food.”

David Greaves, landscape-maintenance manager and horticulturist at Vancouver’s Craine Projects, says succulents are a great option “as long as you get a lot of sun.” He explains that in the design of a planter there’s what’s considered “the thriller” (a standalone focal plant), “the filler” (which “gives it some body”) and “the spiller” (which cascades down the sides of the container). “Succulents can be both filler and spiller,” Greaves says. “Combining those points together can provide an underscore to your main attraction and give some textural interest.”

What’s the best way to make a pollinator garden thrive?

Pollinator gardens are still abuzz as outdoor concepts, and container gardens can serve as an oasis for bees and hummingbirds. Fortier-Devin cites nasturtium – which is also edible – as a favourite option, as well as poppies (which hummingbirds love). “Try planting a variety of flowers so you attract all kinds of insects and get blooms throughout the season,” she says, adding that one should leave basil flowers intact so insects can have a crack at them too.

Tregunno says that while she tends to avoid planting perennials in containers, lavender is a nice pollinator garden selection, as well as dwarf sunflower, cosmos and zinnias. “Bees really like the colour purple,” she notes. Mrosovsky highlights columbine as a good pollinator plant for earlier in the season; and calendula – in addition to being attractive to bees – has its own herbal benefits.

Some bonus tips

  • Water-wise, Fortier-Devin says using a self-watering device or planter can help. Mrosovsky suggests that in a pinch, an empty two-litre beverage bottle with holes made in the cap, filled up and tipped over into the soil would work.
  • Tregunno says she usually drills extra holes at the bottom of a container before planting to ensure the roots don’t rot because of bad drainage.
  • Rachel Sherlock, Persichilli’s colleague and fellow retail manager at Valleyview Gardens, offers the wisdom of “what grows together, goes together.” Meaning, she wouldn’t recommend planting tomatoes with tropicals. “If you’re going to do any kind of planter gardening,” she says, “I would do a floral one and then a vegetable one.”

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